By uniting more than 70 nonprofits, the Human Service Chamber of Franklin County aims to make a bigger impact and help more Central Ohioans.

Those on the front lines assisting the poor, elderly, addicted and disabled call it a perfect storm.

“More people than ever are turning to Central Ohio’s human service agencies for help, just as funding resources at all levels are decreasing,” says Qiana Williams, executive director of the Human Service Chamber of Franklin County (HSCFC), a consortium of Central Ohio social service agencies.

Founded in January 2010, the Human Service Chamber’s 73 members take a collective approach to advocating for clients, impacting public policy, looking for cost savings and programming collaboration.

“The network that provides human services is closely intertwined. When one piece deteriorates, other pieces start unraveling, too. We must demonstrate that we matter as a human services system, not just as individual agencies. It’s the entire system that creates the safety net,” says Mary Lou Langenhop, CEO of Children’s Hunger Alliance (CHA).

And that safety net is being pulled in all directions. A December 2011 report conducted by Community Research Partners for HSCFC shows Franklin County’s population increased by 9 percent during the past decade, but the number of residents living in poverty increased by 75 percent. One of every five Franklin County residents is poor. The county also experienced a 220 percent increase in the number of unemployed workers. As a result, the need for services is stronger than ever. In 2009, chamber member organizations collectively served 2.47 million people.

“People don’t always appreciate the level of need among our neighbors. The face of need is changing. Because of the economic downturn, we’re seeing people who’ve never had to access social services before,” Williams says.

But just as demand is up, funding is down. According to HSCFC figures, Central Ohio human service organizations have experienced cuts between 12 percent and 25 percent during the past decade. Caseloads have doubled and even tripled. It’s daunting, but agency officials say they are trying to make the most of every penny. Expenses have been trimmed. Resources are being shared. Fundraising and grant opportunities are actively pursued.

“At the end of the day, it’s about the clients. Everything we do centers around ensuring clients receive the most appropriate services,” Williams says.

HSCFC Operations

Established as a 501(c)(4) entity, HSCFC functions much like a trade association. “Our policies and direction are set by a steering committee comprised of our member agencies,” Williams says. “Our member agencies elect steering committee members to three-year terms. No matter what their size, each organization has one vote.”

To date, HSCFC has gotten the largest single chunk of its $230,000 annual budget from the Columbus Foundation, through $50,000 grants in 2010 and 2011. “We’re a membership organization, so the remainder comes from member dues. Based on each organization’s budget, agencies pay between $500 and $5,000 to be chamber members,” Williams says.

Robert “Bo” Chilton, HSCFC chairman and CEO of Impact Community Action, says nonprofits need to band together and support the chamber if it is to succeed. “Past efforts to come together resulted in incremental change. But if we want transformational change to meet the needs we face today, we must hire full-time staff and pay dues. It shows our public and private funders that we’re putting our money where our mouth is,” he says.

Forty agencies joined HSCFC in its first year, and the ranks have grown steadily. The organization helps members find ways to share services and leadership development, tap cost-savings opportunities, boost fundraising and also advocates and lobbies on the sector’s behalf. “We look at what matters to the greatest number of our member agencies. The chamber may not take the lead in all situations, but we do support all of our agencies,” Williams says.

Williams, a former manager of diversity and inclusion for Limited Brands, joined the organization in June 2010. She brought with her a nonprofit background, having served as director for advocacy and community engagement for the Columbus Urban League as well as a board member for CHA, United Way of Central Ohio and other organizations.

“HSCFC doesn’t promote any individual agency’s priorities. Every organization has its voice heard,” says Denise Robinson, HSCFC secretary and steering committee member. She’s also president and CEO of Alvis House, which serves clients with disabilities and provides transitional services for criminal offenders and their families.

Advocacy and Agendas

After experiencing budget cut after budget cut, Central Ohio nonprofit executives searched for a way to amplify their agencies’ voices. “They wanted a seat at the table during those discussions, so others can understand the impact the cuts have on clients and the larger community,” Williams says.

“Human services agencies previously had informal relationships, but never a structured organization to move the member agencies’ agenda forward. That’s what the chamber does,” Chilton says.

HSCFC actively lobbies city, county and state officials. “Public officials can get the pulse of the social services community through our chamber. I think we’ve distinguished ourselves in that,” Williams says. “Other entities in the past have come together around a single issue. Once that issue is solved, they disband. The chamber grapples with a number of issues that affect all of us in the human services sector.”

“By coming together through HSCFC, we’re part of the discussions and decisions about human service needs, agencies and funding. We’re finding that to be the case whether it’s about public dollars or private funding,” Chilton says. He cites HSCFC’s participation in the city of Columbus’s Finance Review and Advisory Committee as one such example.

“As for advocacy, our agencies can do a lot more collectively than individually,” says Amy Klaben, president and CEO of the Columbus Housing Partnership (CHP).

“I feel as part of HSCFC, people are listening to us differently now,” says Diane Bennett, HSCFC steering committee member. She’s also CEO of Action for Children, a child-care and early learning resource. “As a group of 70, we have decades of nonprofit experience. We’ve all come together as one voice to influence policymakers, stakeholders, business leaders and funding agencies.”

HSCFC has claimed some early success in the lobbying arena. When the Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Board of Franklin County faced proposed funding cuts in the latest biennial state budget, it approached HSCFC. “Mental health issues affect almost every agency and their clients. We hired a consultant to lobby against those cuts. Ultimately we preserved the funding,” Chilton says.

Jennifer Eschbach, interim executive director of the Ohio Association of Nonprofit Organizations, says that kind of direct advocacy differentiates HSCFC from other nonprofit organizations. “There’s power in numbers, and there’s something to be said for that approach,” Eschbach says. “Most of its member agencies probably have an industry trade association that’s mission-specific. At the chamber, they put their missions aside to advocate across the human services sector. And the fact they work so closely with the local government agencies makes them different, too.”

Cost Savings

HSCFC member agencies benefit from economies of scale. “All of the agencies work on donations and fundraising, and we all need to be as cost-conscious as possible. It became evident that we needed to partner together to address mutual concerns, no matter who we serve,” says Michael Hanes, chief operating officer at Vision and Vocational Services.

HSCFC has negotiated discounts at Staples, the office supply store. “Generally our members receive 15 to 20 percent in cost savings,” Williams says.

Agencies also find cost-savings ideas from networking with their fellow members. “Beyond the CEO level, key staff members get together, too. The financial officers recently met. That type of networking brings real value to our organization, and subsequently to our clients and the community,” Langenhop says.

“We gather ideas and exchange information. We learn how other agencies addressed similar circumstances. Can we share a consultant or gain purchasing power by teaming up with others?” Hanes says.

Some HSCFC member agencies cut overhead by moving in together. That’s the case for the Columbus Literacy Council and HandsOn Central Ohio. The Columbus Speech and Hearing Center and Communities in Schools of Central Ohio also share office space.

While agency mergers are tough decisions, they can make economic sense. In 2011, HSCFC member United Cerebral Palsy of Central Ohio merged with another member agency, Goodwill Columbus, in a cost-saving move to serve individuals with disabilities.

Fundraising is a necessary—but also a time-consuming and costly—effort. HSCFC created a donation website last year known as Give Direct Central Ohio, at www.givedirectcentralohio.org. “We wrestled with how to support the organizations that have high brand recognition and those smaller agencies that aren’t as well-known. This approach makes it the same for everyone,” Williams says.

Each member organization has its own portal through the website. Donors see a brief description of the services provided and the populations served. A link takes donors to the agency’s website to learn more. For visitors who contribute through the site, 100 percent of donations go to their agency of choice.

Fundraising became even more important for some organizations after the United Way of Central Ohio changed how it allocates funding to other nonprofits. Some HSCFC members are United Way agencies, but others are not. United Way funding allocations now focus on organizations that help provide individuals with a quality education, a stable income, good health or secure housing. “Their process means that some of our member agencies received funding at one point, but no longer do. Some are still recipients, but may be receiving less,” Williams says.

Collaboration, Not Competition

By checking individual missions at the door, HSCFC is a catalyst for collaboration. “Each agency has a mission it must be true to, but we realize supporting one another is essential,” Chilton says.

HSCFC member agencies serve many of the same clients. “It sounds like duplication of services, but rather it’s ensuring our clients get all of the services they need. The chamber facilitates that,” Klaben says. “Our residents need a roof over their heads and the services of other agencies. The community and, specifically, our funders see that more clearly today in part because of the chamber.”

CHP works with CHA, food pantries and LifeCare Alliance to ensure its residents have enough to eat. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Ohio assisted in developing and implementing a financial fitness curriculum for youth living in CHP’s complexes. “It’s those kinds of relationships that the chamber is fostering,” Klaben says.

“Because of the funding cuts we’ve been through, when we find revenue opportunities, we see how we can partner with others to do even more with that money,” Chilton says.

He cites a Franklin County Job and Family Services request for proposals regarding its Work Experience program to improve the employment skills of 4,000 clients. “Several of us got together to talk about it. St. Stephen’s [Community House] emerged as the lead agency, but our proposal includes services from all six settlement houses, Impact Community Action, Berea Children’s Home [& Family Services], Columbus Urban League, Columbus Area Inc. and the T.O.U.C.H. mentoring program. We went in on the grant together to best serve those clients,” Chilton says.

Child-focused agencies are joining forces, too. “Our groups discuss common needs and the kinds of projects we can work on together. We talk about how to collectively pursue grants for those projects,” Bennett says.

Similar discussions are occurring across the HSCFC membership. “By working together, we’re a force to be reckoned with,” Robinson says. “At Alvis House, we can’t do it all alone. HSCFC is helping us add partners that also can help our clients.”

A frequently used tool in the collaboration efforts is the 2-1-1 referral hotline operated by HSCFC member HandsOn Central Ohio. Agencies know when they use it to make a referral that the person will be directed to the appropriate organization for help. The hotline also matches volunteers and agencies based on skills and needs.

“People in the community appreciate the collaboration. Funding sources, elected officials in particular, are looking for greater efficiencies,” Langenhop says. “By working together, it meets community needs and individual clients’ needs in a broad kind of way across agencies.”

“It’s a competitive world out there, but if we want to find new ways to fund our services and serve our clients, we have to talk to each other,” Bennett says.

Lisa Hooker is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the February 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.